Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Grant Mystique: In Name Only (1939)

If Cary Grant was the king of the screwball comedy, then the queen was Carole Lombard. Grant and Lombard appeared in the same film three times before Lombard's untimely death in 1942, but none of those films was a comedy. In Sinners in the Sun, Grant had no more than five or six minutes of screen time in total opposite Lombard. In The Eagle and the Hawk, they never shared the screen at all. The only true co-starring vehicle they made together was In Name Only (1939, directed by John Cromwell), a romantic drama. It is ironic that Grant's most famous comedy co-stars--Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn--were primarily known as dramatic actresses, while the greatest female comedienne of the age made only dramas with him. This teaming of Lombard and Grant might not have happened at all if Katherine Hepburn hadn't been tagged as "box office poison" in the press after the failures of Bringing Up Baby and Holiday (among other films). Hepburn had subsequently been released from her contract with RKO. It is conceivable that his trio of early films with Hepburn delayed or inhibited Grant's ascent to superstardom. None of them was a financial success in spite of the classic status accorded them years after the fact. In any event, Hepburn was out and Lombard was in. Lombard herself was taking a break from comedies. Her other film from 1939 was Made for Each Other opposite James Stewart, another weepie directed by John Cromwell. It had been a financial disaster. Lombard's life at the time paralleled the plot of In Name Only. She was biding her time until Clark Gable could divorce his wife and she could marry him. Gable, for his part, was off making Gone With the Wind. Her career at the time was also eerily similar to Grant's. Like Grant, she had been contracted to Paramount during her early career, a contract that she finished in 1938. Like Grant, she had chosen to become a free agent when that contract expired. Like Grant, she wasn't starring in comedies in 1939 (Grant's other two films that year, Only Angels Have Wings and Gunga Din, were nominally adventure stories). For both actors, In Name Only was something of a crossroads. Grant had already had a couple of big hits after he left Paramount, though he had had some disappointments, too. He hadn't had a major hit in a serious drama, though. Lombard hadn't yet had her own hit after leaving Paramount and it remained to be seen if she could carry a serious drama. In Name Only turned out to be a film both of them needed. It was moderately successful.

In Name Only follows the relationship between Alec Walker and Julie Eden, who meet when she's fishing in a stream that has no fish. They hit it off. Unfortunately, Alec has neglected to mention that he is already married. His wife, Maida, married Alec for his money. She doesn't love him, but she'll be damned if she'll give him up. She has an investment, after all. Alec is also being chased by Suzanne, one of Maida's friends, who knows of their discontent, but Alec isn't interested. After forcing the issue, she gives Alec a ride home, but they have a car accident in which Alec is injured. Suzanne scrambles to cover things up, as if they were not together. The nearest house belongs to Julie, who is not in on the cover-up. When Maida arrives to thank Julie for taking her husband in, she figures out that Julie and Alec have a relationship. When Maida confronts Alec over this, Alec reveals that he knows that Maida doesn't love him, that she married him for his money and position. Alec demands a divorce, and Maida agrees, but plots to hold on to the marriage. Maida leaves for a cruise with Alec's parents, leaving Alec to romance Julie with the intention of marrying her. But Maida attempts to poison Alec's parents against him in a bid to pressure him out of a divorce. When they return, they're on Maida's side. Julie is shut out of Alec's life, until he catches pneumonia, compounded by his unhappiness without her. She eventually goes to his bedside, where she brings him back from the brink of death. But Maida isn't through with Alec...

When I started this project, I thought I had a pretty good idea of the shape of Cary Grant's career. I thought I knew which films were great, which films were hidden gems, and which films were misfires. I hadn't reckoned with the fact that for most of my movie-going life, fully a third of Grant's films were scarce or unavailable all together. That's a big chunk of his career. One of my main aims was to fill in those gaps. I had no idea whether or not those missing films were good, but I thought they were probably not great. I only had assumptions, many of which were wrong. In Name Only is among Grant's most obscure films and for the life of me I can't figure out why that is. This is a film made in the full flower of Grant's stardom, in which the Grant persona, honed in the screwball comedies, is tested in other genres. Make no mistake, the Grant one finds here is peak Grant. He is effortlessly charming, impossibly handsome, in command of his craft, at ease with the camera. Moreover, he's matched with an actress who is his equal in all of these things, one who has been forged in the same fires. The Carole Lombard one finds here is absolutely the Lombard one finds in My Man Godfrey or Nothing Sacred. Grant and Lombard play off of each other marvelously, too. They make one wish that they could have made a comedy together. Their scenes here sparkle enough that I find myself looking for extenuating circumstances to explain this film's obscurity. True, it's a weepie, which puts it on the outs with many contemporary sensibilities. Certainly, the film bros whose idea of great cinema is the ongoing examination of toxic masculinity would have no use for this film. My suspicion, however, is that it simply got swamped by being released during the so-called greatest year in Hollywood history. The roster of films from 1939 is twenty films deep before anyone starts reckoning with films whose case for greatness is more marginal. I'm not going to make that argument for In Name Only. It's not great in the broadest sense of the word because history has made its judgment on it. It's not even a memory of 1939 these days. But I'll argue that it's a good movie. I'll argue that it's a very good movie.

I've put some emphasis on the pairing of Grant and Lombard here, but this is also a significant film in the career of Kay Francis, who plays Alec's conniving wife, Maida. This film is drastically off brand for Francis, who was a go-to actress for classy, sophisticated dames in the early 1930s. There are lots of heiresses and socialites in her portfolio. Her career had run into a rough patch in the late 1930s, and this film was a comeback vehicle of sorts. She's not the lead, as she would have been five years earlier, but she's better than the lead. She's the villain. She's good at it. Moreover, she's good at it within the idiom of her established persona. She's exactly the same kind of character you find her playing in films like One Way Passage or Trouble in Paradise, only in a much darker tone. Like those films, this film asks her to wear fancy clothes, which she does marvelously. It asks her to hobnob among the well to do. Also check. But then it asks her to wear all of that as a mask for her true motives and for her true face, and that is something she was never asked to do before. She does it with reptilian cool in this movie. It must have been a shock to an audience who only knew her earlier films. It's not quite a heel turn on the scale of Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, but it's in the same ballpark. I mean, she doesn't murder any children here, but I wouldn't put it past her to throttle Julie's daughter if she might have her way.

Because this is a melodrama, elements of the film show the wheels of fate turning. The idea that Alec has a life-threatening malaise that can only be cured by Julie's love might have been deliriously romantic to audiences of the day, but a contemporary audience might find it hard to swallow. I don't know. Maybe it was hard to swallow in 1939, too, but it's not an onerous detail. John Cromwell was a director known for adding realism to his soap operas, represented here by unusually adult relationships between its characters. This film is in violation of the production code, and plays more like a pre-Code film throughout its length. In this it hearkens back a little to the films Grant made at Paramount to start his career. In those films, the destination was more important than the mechanism that gets it there. The plot was an excuse for scenes, after all, and it was the scenes that mattered. In Name Only is of like kind. In purely compositional terms, the stark contrast between the resolution of Alec's illness and Maida's ultimate undoing at the end of the film tends to sell the latter and intensify its impact. It's gratifying for an audience to see love conquer all, sure, but it's even better to watch a villain get their comeuppance.

The film has other pleasures, too. It has a strong supporting cast outside its central trio of stars. Helen Vinson in particular stands out as Maida's best "friend," Suzanne, the would-be homewrecker. So does Katherine Alexander as Julie's disillusioned sister who in a just world would be the fun lesbian aunt to Julie's daughter. Thirties. What can you do? Instead, she's bitter and miserable. Charles Coburn plays against type as Alec's disapproving father. Coburn is an actor mainly known for comedies, too, so this is as much a change of pace for him as it is for Grant and Lombard.

It's hard to say whether this film would have portended a more varied career for either Carole Lombard or Kay Francis. Lombard had such dismal luck with serious dramas that she capitulated to the audience's demand that she make more comedies. Her return to comedies in To Be Or Not To Be was a triumph. She died right before that film was released, however, so who's to say if she was doomed to be trapped in the form. As for Kay Francis, her career was not really helped by In Name Only, which is unfortunate. Like Katherine Hepburn, Francis had been identified as box office poison in the press and had been released from her studio contract with Warner Brothers. She had been cast in this film at the insistence of Lombard, who was her friend. While this film was moderately successful, "moderately" is the operative word here. It did not make enough money to expunge the reputation that had attached to Francis. She would languish in piece work supporting roles for the rest of her career. Both actresses' time on the screen would end soon enough.

As for Cary Grant...Although some of his earlier films presented Grant as a dramatic actor, this one presents the Grant persona itself as a dramatic actor. Some of Grant's early performances in dramas had the persona of "Cary Grant" turned off, possibly because it had not yet been developed by the actor, and those performances present something other than what peak Grant provided. It was still mostly Archie Leach in those films, still seeking to perfect his stardom. In Name Only isn't like that. The presence in the lead is unmistakably the facade of Cary Grant as the world would know him for the rest of his career. That career was about to explode like a supernova.

My other posts on Cary Grant. Only about sixty more films to go:

This is the Night (1932)
The Eagle and the Hawk (1933)
Thirty-Day Princess (1934)
Enter: Madame (1935)
The Last Outpost (1935)
Wings in the Dark (1935)
Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Penny Serenade (1941)
Suspicion (1941)
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944)
To Catch a Thief (1955)
North by Northwest (1959)
Operation: Petticoat (1959)
Charade (1963)

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